HL Deb 24 June 1998 vol 591 cc336-40

House again in Committee on Clause 1.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 14:

Page 2, line 1, leave Out ("a registered party, or").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I speak to the other amendments consequential upon it.

In a way this amendment is the second half of the discussion on how we arrange the list system. The Committee will recall that the Government's proposal is that the list should be entirely closed, decided by the parties and presented to the electorate as a fait accompli. I believe that the Minister said earlier—I should appreciate confirmation; it might save me putting down an amendment later—that it is the Government's intention that the list will appear on the ballot paper although one will be invited to vote only for the party of one's choice.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. It is intended that there should be a list of names.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am grateful. It is wise to put a list of names on the ballot paper. Perhaps I may say this to the Minister in the other jousting capacity in which we meet. We shall probably want the same provision on the Welsh and Scottish Bills, with the additional members' list, but we can leave that for the moment.

Under the Government's choice, the electorate will be given a simple choice of the parties: Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green, Scottish Nationalist or Plaid Cymru, and the electorate will vote for the party. That will signify assent to the order in which the parties are put on the list. That is the closed list. I shall not go into the question of how the parties decide the order on the list. Clearly the order on the list is all important. If a party is to gain two seats on the d'Hondt principle, positions one and two are vital to hold. Therefore it will clearly be of considerable interest to everyone how parties go about it.

All parties have come to slightly different conclusions on that. One could even start at the beginning and have a primary system such as that in America. But no one has proposed that and I do not think that I shall do so today or on another day. We discussed the Belgian system earlier, and I suggested the defects in that system.

We now come to what I call the fully open list. It is the system used, for example, in Finland. Instead of the elector being confronted with a ballot paper that has the party's name on it, and invited to vote for the party, or—as with the Belgian system—with the party's name and the candidates' names and the option of putting his cross against. say, the Conservative Party or one of the Conservative candidates on the list, the entirely open list system would have no box for the party. If I wished to vote for the Conservative Party, I should have to pick one of the candidates to vote for. I would indicate by my vote my first choice of candidate, the candidate I wished to see elected.

When all the votes were counted the total for the Conservative Party would be arrived at by, for example, adding all the votes achieved by all the Conservative candidates; and similar for Labour, Liberal Democrats and anyone else. The d'Hondt system would work and a decision would be made about how many candidates each party could have elected. Let us assume that the Conservative Party had two seats. The presiding officer would simply look down the list at the two people who had gained the most votes. Therefore, numbers one and two in the election would be elected for the Conservative Party. That is why it is called the open list.

The choice of the order is down to the electors. If I want to vote for the Conservative Party I am allowed to vote not only for that party but to choose within the list of Conservative candidates presented to me. Of course, the party would still control how the candidates get on to the list and to that extent I concede that the system is not entirely open. However, it is more open that the Government's system and all parties would probably have a reasonable system to decide on the 10 candidates.

One could put in some twists; for example, the order on the list is important. There is a great deal of evidence that long lists give the person at the top a slight advantage. Candidates could be placed in alphabetical order, which would give an advantage to the "As" and a disadvantage to the "Macs" and we cannot have that. Some people go to ridiculous extremes and such is the brilliance of PR. One could provide a random selection with every ballot paper presenting a different order. Alternatively, I suggest that the parties should be invited to place the candidates in the preferred order so that the top person would gain a slight advantage in the top position. Therefore, I concede that there would be a slight amount of central party domination. But it would be only slight and I suspect that the way in which people would vote for those on the rest of the list would upset any grand design that the parties may have.

It is an entirely open system. It gets around the problems I have described in the Belgian system and I shall be interested to hear what the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Steel, have to say about the open system. I wish to point out that the fact that I am proposing this amendment does not mean that I am now falling in love with proportional representation. I am not at all; I still believe that first-past-the-post is preferable. However, within the rules we have a PR system proposed by the Government and I see no problem with proposing an amendment to that system in order to improve it. That does not mean to say that I would be making it better than first-past-the-post, but I believe that I would be taking out of the list system one of its defects; namely, that it gives undue power to the central organisations of the political parties and gives the electorate little or no control over who they will vote for as the Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat candidate. I beg to move.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

I do not know what the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is playing at because if he had wished to make a minor improvement to the system proposed in the Bill he had the opportunity to do so a couple of hours ago. Had he and his colleagues voted, we would have been able to make the improvement in the Bill. Now, here he is putting forward fundamentally the same system which he describes as the Finnish system.

I congratulate him on the fact that he has caught up with what we were debating 20 years ago. I suppose that that is an advance. We debated the system in the other place in December 1977. It was the system proposed in the European Assembly Elections Bill, as it was then called. It is interesting to note that at that time the Conservative Party was fundamentally opposed to the idea. Indeed, Mr. Douglas Hurd, as he then was, speaking on behalf of the Opposition, said: I believe that it was discovered by a Liberal professor in the Forests of Finland".—[Official Report, Commons, 13/ 12/77; col. 319.] What was discovered by a Liberal professor in the Forests of Finland in 1977 has presumably been discovered by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, in the Forests of Argyll.

But I really do not understand at all the purpose of the amendment. The noble Lord does not believe in this system. He believes in the first-past-the-post system. This amendment is something of a waste of time for the Committee and I hope that the Minister will dispatch it quickly.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

It is always the amendments that one does not believe in which are the most attractive. If we adopt the system which we propose, 70 per cent. of European Union citizens will be voting in that way in the elections next year—the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Greece, Spain and Portugal. We see the virtue in the scheme that we have. It means that the party can select its list as appropriate with internal democracy and suitable arrangements which have been agreed by party members.

However, there may well be instances where one feels that ethnic minority candidates or women have been disfavoured, as undoubtedly they have been in the past. There may be a very good reason for saying that a party would like to have on its list someone who will represent, for example, the particular interests of agriculture, mining, heavy industry, the specific interests of North Wales, or aspects of it, or south-east Wales, which has entirely different problems, or even, dare I say it, with the interests of forestry firmly in mind.

We believe we have struck an appropriate balance here. A party produces a list and it offers itself and its list of candidates to the voters, who very often will have little personal knowledge of the candidates, however much publicity and education there are. That is our stance. I made it plain earlier and it would be a disagreeable discourtesy to trespass further on the time of the Committee.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

That certainly was brief. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, does not understand the difference between the system that he proposed this afternoon and mine. I thought I explained quite carefully the major defect in the Belgian system; namely, that someone could gain more personal votes than someone else on the list and yet still not be elected because of his position on the list. I thought I had explained to the Committee that that was a considerable defect.

If one is to have a list and one wants to open out that list, this system seems to be preferable. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, is rather peeved that Members of the Committee on these Benches did not follow him into the Lobby on his previous amendment. We certainly did not do that. I explained quite carefully my reasons. The noble Lord listened to my reasons, but he clearly needs to read them to get them firmly implanted. If he does that, he will see that within the parameters of not liking this system at all, the reason for the open list is very clear. The reason that I can easily defend the open list when I could not agree with the Belgian system was explained in fairly great detail and I tried to do it in shorthand this evening. However, if one is to open up the list, it should be done properly and not in a half-hearted way. Perhaps that is the way that the Liberal Democrats like because it is a bit of, "On the one hand and on the other". But I had better not tease them any more this evening.

It seemed to me that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, was coming quite close to saying that we cannot trust the people and we must try to arrange the list so that the people can be guided to make the right balanced decisions. The only reason that we need to think in terms of people on the list to represent parts of constituencies or their industries is that we are going down the road of those huge regional constituencies and away from the first-past-the-post system. For example, in Scotland I can quite see that, in order to get somebody to represent the Highlands of Scotland who lives there, one will probably need to manipulate the list. Otherwise, the block vote of the central belt will just overwhelm it. That seems to me to be a compelling reason for sticking with first-past-the-post and not going down that particular road. Actually, I suspect that the person from the Highlands would be elected in Scotland simply because most people have an interest in the Highlands. The person from Glasgow might find himself not elected because the rest of Scotland might conspire against him.

If the best argument the Minister has is that we have to try to make sure that different parts of constituencies are represented, my advice to him is to stick to the first-past-the-post system. However, I can see that the Government have decided pretty firmly that control from Millbank—I was going to say from the Labour Party headquarters in Glasgow, but it will probably have little or no say in the matter—is important (I can understand that) and that it is important that the list is centrally directed by a political party. At this time of night there is little profit in pursuing the matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Carter

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

House adjourned at twenty minutes before ten o'clock.